The Problems with Traditional Telephony

Although Alexander Graham Bell is most famously remembered as the father of the telephone,[179] the reality is that during the latter half of the 1800s, dozens of minds were working toward the goal of carrying voice over telegraph lines. These people were mostly business-minded folks, looking to create a product through which they might make their fortunes.

We have come to think of traditional telephone companies as monopolies, but this was not true in their early days. The early history of telephone service took place in a very competitive environment, with new companies springing up all over the world, often with little or no respect for the patents they might be violating. Many famous monopolies got their start through the waging (and winning) of patent wars.

It’s interesting to contrast the history of the telephone with the history of Linux and the Internet. While the telephone was created as a commercial exercise, and the telecom industry was forged through lawsuits and corporate takeovers, Linux and the Internet arose out of the academic community, which has always valued the sharing of knowledge over profit.

The cultural differences are obvious. Telecommunications technologies tend to be closed, confusing, and expensive, while networking technologies are comparatively open, well documented, and competitive.

Closed Thinking

If one compares the culture of the telecommunications industry to that of the Internet, it is sometimes difficult to believe the two are related. The technology of the Internet was designed in large part by academics and enthusiasts, whereas contributing to the development of the PSTN is impossible for any individual to contemplate. This is an exclusive club; membership is not open to just anyone.[180]

Although the ITU is the United Nations’s sanctioned body responsible for international telecommunications, many of the VoIP protocols (SIP, MGCP, RTP, STUN) come not from the ITU, but rather from the IETF (which publishes all of its standards free to all, and allows anyone to submit an Internet Draft for consideration).

Open protocols such as SIP may have a tactical advantage over ITU protocols such as H.323 due to the ease with which one can obtain them.[181] Although H.323 is widely deployed by carriers as a VoIP protocol in the backbone, it is much more difficult to find H.323-based endpoints; newer products are far more likely to support SIP.

The success of the IETF’s open approach has not gone unnoticed by the ITU. Since the first edition of this book, the ITU has made all of the ITU-T and ITU-R recommendations available as free downloads in PDF form from its website (

As for Asterisk, it embraces both the past and the future—H.323 support is available, although the community has for the most part shunned H.323 in favor of the IETF protocol SIP and the darling of the Asterisk community, IAX.

Limited Standards Compliancy

One of the oddest things about all the standards that exist in the world of legacy telecommunications is the various manufacturers’ seeming inability to implement them consistently. Each manufacturer desires a total monopoly, so the concept of interoperability tends to take a back seat to being first to market with a creative new idea.

The ISDN protocols are a classic example of this. Deployment of ISDN was (and in many ways still is) a painful and expensive proposition, as each manufacturer decided to implement it in a slightly different way. ISDN could very well have helped to usher in a massive public data network, 10 years before the Internet. Unfortunately, due to its cost, complexity, and compatibility issues, ISDN never delivered much more than voice, with the occasional video or data connection for those willing to pay. ISDN is quite common (especially in Europe, and in North America in larger PBX implementations), but it is not delivering anywhere near the capabilities that were envisioned for it.

As VoIP becomes more and more ubiquitous, the need for ISDN will disappear.

Slow Release Cycles

It can take months, or sometimes years, for the big guys to admit to a trend, let alone release a product that is compatible with it. It seems that before a new technology can be embraced, it must be analyzed to death, and then it must pass successfully through various layers of bureaucracy before it is even scheduled into the development cycle. Months or even years must pass before any useful product can be expected. When those products are finally released, they are often based on hardware that is obsolete; they also tend to be expensive and to offer no more than a minimal feature set.

These slow release cycles simply don’t work in today’s world of business communications. On the Internet, new ideas can take root in a matter of weeks and become viable in extremely short periods of time. Since every other technology must adapt to these changes, so too must telecommunications.

Open source development is inherently better able to adapt to rapid technological change, which gives it an enormous competitive advantage.

The spectacular crash of the telecom industry may have been caused in large part by an inability to change. Perhaps that continued inability is why recovery has been so slow. Now, there is no choice: change, or cease to be. Community-driven technologies such as Asterisk are seeing to that.

Refusing to Let Go of the Past and Embrace the Future

Traditional telecommunications companies have lost touch with their customers. While the concept of adding functionality beyond the basic telephone is well understood, the idea that the user should be the one defining this functionality is not.

Nowadays, people have nearly limitless flexibility in every other form of communication. They simply cannot understand why telecommunications cannot be delivered as flexibly as the industry has been promising for so many years. The concept of flexibility is not familiar to the telecom industry, and very well might not be until open source products such as Asterisk begin to transform the fundamental nature of the industry. This is a revolution similar to the one Linux and the Internet willingly started over 10 years ago (and IBM unwittingly started with the PC, 15 years before that). What is this revolution? The commoditization of telephony hardware and software, enabling a proliferation of tailor-made telecommunications systems.

[179] Ever heard of Elisha Gray or Antonio Meucci?

[180] Contrast this with the IETF’s membership page, which states: “The IETF is not a membership organization (no cards, no dues, no secret handshakes :-)…It is open to any interested individual…Welcome to the IETF.” Talk about community!

[181] Many people who are familiar with both protocols suggest that H.323 is in fact technically superior. Betamax, anyone?